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Thursday, April 08, 2021

The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 4 (book review)

 My latest review is up at Talkin' Broadway.


According to their interviews in The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 4, Ed Dixon has great affection for The Scarlet Pimpernel; Krysta Rodriguez saw Assassins at Studio 54 three times; and Arbender J. Robinson auditioned 30-plus times over many years before being cast in The Lion King. At 8 years old, Andrew Keenan-Bolger was so moved by Les Mis that he cried when characters died. Liz Callaway misses "when theatres were grungy and the area was in danger" (as do I). There were columns in the set of Grand Hotel because there were columns in the rehearsal room. As a kid, William Finn thought that My Fair Lady had always existed, like the Talmud. Longtime stagehand Manny Diaz has never seen a Broadway show from the audience. Twelve-year-old future-director Lynne Meadow thought her first Broadway show (Destry Rides Again) wasn't that good. Pretty much every other interviewee was gobsmacked by their first.
To read more, click here.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Tom Stoppard: A Life (book review)

My review of Tom Stoppard: A Life appears on Talkin' Broadway.




Hermione Lee's Tom Stoppard: A Life is a formidable achievement. Not only does Lee cover the story of Stoppard's life in great detail, but she also examines the genesis of each of his plays, offers social and political context, and provides thumbnail bios for dozens of the people in Stoppard's life. The result is 872 pages long, including copious notes; it is simultaneously fascinating and a bit of a slog. 

To read more, click here.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Myths and Hymns (Chapter 1): Flight

I'm going to cut to the chase here. I highly, highly, highly recommend the MasterVoices streaming production of Myths and Hymns, chapter one of which is available right now. The music, by Adam Guettel, is gorgeous. The lyrics are often lovely, sometimes silly and funny, occasionally grand. The designs are graceful and beautiful. The cast is amazing. And it's free, although you can certainly give a donation. I did.


Here are some excerpts from the press release to give you all the info you need:

Mastervoices Presents Flight, The First Chapter Of Adam Guettel’s Four-Part Theatrical Song Cycle Myths And Hymns, In A Digital Production Conceived And Supervised By Ted Sperling

Flight features the MasterVoices Chorus; singers Julia Bullock, Renée Fleming, Joshua Henry, Capathia Jenkins, Mykal Kilgore, Norm Lewis, Jose Llana, Kelli O'Hara, and Elizabeth Stanley; the a cappella gospel music group Take 6; actress Annie Golden; and pianists Anderson & Roe. It can be found at the ensemble's YouTube channel and on mastervoices.org.

Myths and Hymns - CHAPTER ONE: FLIGHT
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Additional lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
Orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Jamie Lawrence
MasterVoices, Ted Sperling, ​Artistic Director and Conductor​ 



Prometheus
Anderson & Roe, piano duo
Greg Anderson, arranger and director




Saturn Returns: the Flight
MasterVoices
Joshua Henry, soloist
Ted Sperling, director   



                                               

Icarus
MasterVoices
Mykal Kilgore, soloist (Icarus)
Norm Lewis, soloist (Daedalus)
Sammi Cannold, director
Lucy Mackinnon, designer


Migratory V
MasterVoices
Julia Bullock, soloist
Renée Fleming, soloist
Kelli O'Hara, soloist
Lear deBessonet, director
Danny Mefford, co-creator
Yazmany Arboleda, co-creator and illustrator
Cloud Chatanda, animation 



Pegasus
Annie Golden, narrator
Jose Llana, soloist (Bellerophon)
Capathia Jenkins, soloist (Pegasus)
Elizabeth Stanley, soloist (Gadfly)
Ted Sperling, director
Steven Kellogg, illustrations



Jesus, the Mighty Conqueror
MasterVoices
Take 6, soloists
Mark Kibble, arranger
Khristian Dentley, director


Mastervoices Presents Work, The Second Chapter Of Adam Guettel’s Four-Part Theatrical Song Cycle Myths And Hymns, On February 24, 2021

With the MasterVoices Chorus; Singers Shoshana Bean, Daniel Breaker, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Michael McElroy, Ailyn Pérez, and Nicholas Phan; and actor John Lithgow.

Wendy Caster

Monday, December 07, 2020

Singular Sensation (book review)

I reviewed Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel, on Talkin' Broadway. I had mixed feelings. 

To read the review, please click here.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Conflict

Great news: It's not too late to watch The Mint's fabulous production of the painfully timely 1925 play Conflict. (Review of the production here.) For free. This is a nicely done video of the full production, and I recommend it highly. (BTW, it can only be watched from The Mint site and not on YouTube, but I ran a cable from my computer to my TV and the quality was excellent.) It's available through November 1.

Jeremy Beck and Jessie Shelton 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Here's the info from their website:

Free On Demand Streaming of Miles Malleson’s election comedy CONFLICT runs from Monday October 19 through November 1. Closed Captioning is available.

If you need the Password, send an email to streaming@minttheater.org and watch for a response.

If you don’t see a reply, please check your spam folder and make sure you have a valid “reply to” address.

Mint is proud to have our artists back on payroll while offering you an opportunity to experience great plays and productions from the safety and comfort of your own home. We are gratified to know that we are providing a lift to out-of-work actors while sharing the Mint experience with old and new friends from around the world. Your support helps to make this possible.

Please consider making a gift to the Mint. Thank you!

The Mint itself can be reached at minttheater.org 

Wendy Caster


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Far Away (PTP/NYC)

In the past couple of decades, Caryl Churchill has perfected the oblique and concentrated one-act play, somehow providing the intellectual challenge and emotional punch of the best of full-length plays in less than an hour. Examples include Escaped Alone (55 minutes), a cutting examination of  people maintaining "normality" as the world unravels; A Number (60 minutes), which considers cloning from a clone's point of view; and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (45 minutes), an evisceration of the United States' treatment of other countries. 


Caitlin Duffy and Ro Boddie

And then there is Far Away, which brilliantly depicts an existence that is just to the right of our current world. (The original New York production, in 2002, came across as a "what if" exercise, with a certain amount of insanity/metaphor/magic realism. In 2020, after many "what ifs" have actually occurred, the world of Far Away feels considerably less far away.)


Nesba Crenshaw and Lilah May Pfeiffer 

It's difficult to describe Far Away without spoilers. In fact, almost any description would tell too much. Suffice to say that it depicts a world where good things happen, horrible things happen, and as regular people go from day to day in their uncontroversial lives they may be more complicit than they would ever guess. 

The excellent PTP/NYC posted an amazingly successful streaming version of Far Away last week. Cheryl Faraone directed with her usual subtle intelligence, and she made simple but effective decisions to utilize the strengths of streaming (everyone in the audience has an excellent seat) and bypass the weaknesses (the use of identical backdrops and choreographed looks between actors make it easy to forget that they were not in the same room). Unfortunately, the current situation made impossible a truly amazing coup de theatre in the play, and I'm not sure that Faraone's replacement was sufficient to let new audiences know exactly what was going on. (In the original NY production at the NYTW, the scene was equal parts thrilling and chilling.)

In a streaming production, the skills of the performers are particularly important, and the cast is terrific: Lilah May Pfeiffer nicely shows that the questioning nature of young people can become dangerous; Nesba Crenshaw believably sinks into paranoia--or does she?--without ever seeming crazy; Ro Boddie charms as he negotiates finding a coworker attractive; and Caitlin Duffy is superbly both guarded and transparent as she struggles to understand what is happening inside and outside of her world and how she should respond.

It may seem strange to review a production that is no longer available and that can't be discussed in any real detail, but here's the thing: the wonderful people at PTP/NYC are already planning their next season, which will likely include other strong and significant shows, beautifully produced. That's what they've been doing for decades. 

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Seven Sins

Company XIV cast of Seven Sins. Photo by Mark Shelby Perry.
Seven Sins by Company XIV, their most cohesive production to date, tells the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and the introduction of the seven deadly sins using three narrators. Cemiyon Barber/Scott Schneider (Adam) and Emily Stockwell/Danielle J.S. Gordon (Eve) unfold the tale through movement, while Amy Jo Jackson as The Devil dominates with strong vocals and a hedonistic presence — her non-apologetic Satan embraces every bit of sequined avarice.

Stockwell* towers over Barber and when they dance, it exposes a lovely awkwardness: a subtle nod to humanity’s flaws and life’s inequity amid the beauty of their gestures. Eve — created by Adam’s rib, in a Vegas-like bit where Adam gets sawed in half and she magically appears in a cage — possesses a gangliness that contrasts with Barber’s sleekness. After a glittery snake, carried by a team of acolytes in bondage wear, introduces the apple, the two awkwardly remove ugly transparent costumes that emphasize their naked body parts, struggle with their nudity in a frantic fig leaf dance and, ultimately, join most of the vices onstage.

Some of the pair’s participation is integral to the number like when Lust (a provocative Lilin) shimmies over a blindfolded Adam in an elaborate lap dance. In others, for instance when Sloth (Troy Lingelbach) twists acrobatically over them as they sit sedately in a bathtub, offer less insight into story — giving spectacle rather than showing Adam and Eve’s evolution as both adapt to this new world full of temptations.

While Director/Choreographer Austin McCormick always creates inventive and entertaining productions, his work can lack emotional impact and a smoothness in storytelling. Even past pieces with well-known storylines, such as Cinderella and Snow White, slip into periodic vacuity when pageantry becomes more important than its characters. Seven Sins, however, provides real resonance, especially when using Adam and Eve as more than mere stand-ins, raising the bar for McCormick’s work and pushing beyond the litany of provocative acts. A pas de deux by the Eden outcasts near the end, for instance, is lovingly done, evoking a closeness of the couple and a yearning for what they’ve lost: a truly moving moment.

Seven Sins continues Company XV’s signature burlesque that mostly succeeds. Marcy Richardson, always a powerhouse, embodies Greed as she embraces the ultimate stripper pole and blends opera with an appreciation for her leanness and grace. Nolan McKew and Troy Lingelbach as Jealousy show athleticism as they try to outdo each other while suspended over the audience. More hokey is the Gluttony number that goes on for several segments and showcases silly posturing with plastic foods and an over-the-top can-can. Still, the blend of low- and high-brow entertainment embodies what Company XV provides in all of their shows — where else can you see such a collection of opera, nudity, dance, cabaret and circus acts?

The show runs through Oct. 31 (383 Troutman St., Bushwick, Brooklyn) Thursday-Sunday. Two hours with two intermissions. New Serpent VIP seating is available, and includes a variety of snacks, drinks and tableside entertainment. Tickets start at $85 and range from $245-$295 for VIP seating. For more information, see: http:CompanyXIV.com

*in the Thursday night performance seen by the reviewer

Friday, February 21, 2020

West Side Story

While it seems that a good half the theater-going public in and around New York City hotly disagrees with me, I'm squarely in the camp that believes Ivo Van Hove's maximal minimalism fails West Side Story in a whole host of ways. This is a real shame: musicals, especially canonical ones, aren't terribly concerned with exploring the nuances of class dynamics, especially as they relate to immigration, race, and place. Had West Side Story been updated with more in the way of cultural insight--as, for example, Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! so brilliantly was--it could easily have served as a springboard for myriad meaningful reflections about the current cultural moment. But Van Hove, never an especially politically savvy director, here doesn't offer any truly compelling justification for what he's done to the musical.


Exceedingly spare in dialogue or much in the way of backstory, West Side Story practically demands a triple-threat cast that can convincingly play teen gangsters who sing exceedingly complicated melodies and nail intensely physical dance sequences between rumbles. Done well, the show is devastating--and not just because of the doomed romance at its core. I've always thought that the cruelest joke of the musical is that the Jets and Sharks are so willing to destroy one another over control of the slum they're forced to share--the dilapidated "turf" the Jets have been stuck in for longer but that the Sharks are guaranteed to have more difficulty getting out of. I suppose Van Hove is trying to drive that notion home via casting that is more honestly reflective of disenfranchised urban teens. But that's about as deep as the show ever gets.

Don't get me wrong: it's nice that the Jets are no longer all white, that the Sharks no longer wear brownface, and that the gang members' "girls" are no longer gum-cracking twits in poodle skirts. There are even some non-binary gang members--can you imagine?! Woah--poor folk sure are diverse! Culture is so very messy, though: is the casting meant to compensate for the presence of Amar Ramasar in the role of Bernardo, or for the production's insistent de-emphasis of the musical's already thinly developed female characters?

The show does have some pluses: a lot of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker's choreography is beautiful. The tableau she has created at the end of the balcony--er, fire escape--scene, during which Tony (Isaac Cole Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) lean toward each other as their peers pull them apart, is gorgeously lit, and moving in a way that too much of the rest of the production is not. The rumble, which takes place on a bare stage under Van Hove's signature Misty Rain©, is gorgeously lit and staged. And I feel compelled to give a special shout-out to Andrew Sotomayor for the brilliant makeup design: I've seen far too many smeary, fake stage tattoos in my years as a theatergoer; his scars, tats, and piercings are impressively applied. Also, thanks to him, we now get to know what Maria would look like had Chino actually shot her--in the head--at the end of the musical! In slow motion! In hi-res detail!

Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
Given that there's such incredible attention to some details--perfectly sculpted tableaux, realistic battle scars, Maria with a totally gratuitous gaping head-wound--why would the performers' microphones snake so obviously from their hairlines whenever a huge, real-time image of a sneering gang member is projected onto the back wall of the stage? This might seem like a silly thing for me to be hung up on, but then, it is perfectly indicative of the many ways this production, for all its stunningly perfect trees, so regularly misses the forest.

For example: the cast dances together beautifully, but they act and sing far less cohesively. The two leads are lovely--I'm sure they'll both become huge stars--but they're not ideally matched. Powell has terrific stage presence, but his gruffly contemporary Tony doesn't jibe with Pimentel's classic Maria, especially when they sing together and her gorgeous, soaring soprano overpowers his reasonably strong tenor. Other performers' voices are similarly inconsistent, and a number of soloists tend toward riffed embellishments they aren't always vocally strong enough to land. The music director seems to have encouraged the conductor to build countless safeties into the score instead of just insisting that the singers all dial the fuck back on the melisma. As a result, the sonic aspects of the production lack even a hint of the urgent, explosive build Van Hove seems to have been so insistent on newly emphasizing in the first place.

But all the inconsistencies don't hold a candle to the production's biggest misstep, which is in its use of near-constant high-res projections in lieu of a traditional backdrop. Most of the projections reflect the performers' actions in real time, while others have been prerecorded. The tactic is interesting for a few minutes, but the projections too often dwarf or distract from the actors: why is that street scene moving while Tony and Maria are pledging their love to each other? Are they supposed to be walking sideways down the middle of the street as they sing? Are those dancers in the distance also somewhere on the stage, or were they prerecorded? Which actor corresponds to that projection of a gigantic torso? What were those little ants--sorry, I mean actual human non-projected cast members--doing on that cavernous empty stage while I was being mesmerized by that gargantuan mic peeking out from that absolutely epic wig?

I suppose all the tiny, secret compartments Van Hove has devised on, in, and several floors above the stage--Doc's, the dress (here sweat)shop, Maria's bedroom--are meant to reflect overcrowded, constricting urban spaces and the stresses caused by forced togetherness, but they only distract further: why are the actors all crammed into spaces the audience cannot see except via huge, curtailed projections? Are those snacks in the sweatshop? If so, what kind of snacks are they? Are the decorations in Maria's bedroom supposed to be symbolic? What did I miss while I was contemplating the snacks?

Done well, there's a heartbreaking immediacy to West Side Story; after all, it's ultimately about desperate, forgotten teenagers who fight and fuck each other, dream and die together. Van Hove may have been trying to prove various points in relying as heavily as he does on his projections, but because the overuse of them saps the musical's intimacy, all this production of West Side Story has to offer is Misty Rain© falling on some monosyllabic meatheads as they kill time and one another. Those really are some super-convincing face tats, though. Seriously.